The question-and-answer site Quora sort of blew up this week, an eruption whose cause was sufficiently ambiguous to merit a discussion thread on the site itself.
"Why are people suddenly using Quora?" someone asked. Six people posted answers with varying degrees of usefulness. Sounds like Yahoo Answers, you say? Well, yeah.
But Quora at this point is mainly inhabited by tech and social-media types, while Yahoo has all of humanity reading it and thus has a fair amount of sex talk and race-baiting and other explicit stuff in which tech and social media don't engage, or at least tend to "backchannel." Quora is also, I suppose, more useful -- and it's most certainly having a moment.
The best thinking about the site and its potential uses without really being about Quora came from Paul Ford, author of the blog known as The F Train. In "The Web Is a Customer Service Medium," Mr. Ford advises his friends in publishing who are still struggling with the very existence of the web to build a community, sort of like the nascent Quora but definitely like Metafilter:
That's what I tell my Gutenbourgeois friends, if they'll listen. I say: Create a service experience around what you publish and sell. Whatever "customer service" means when it comes to books and authors, figure it out and do it. Do it in partnership with your readers. Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don't just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves. These things are cheap and easy now if you hire one or two smart people instead of a large consultancy. Define what the boundaries are in your community and punish transgressors without fear of losing a sale. Then, if your product is good, you'll sell things. (Don't count on your fellow Gutenbourgeois to buy things. They're clicking the little thumb icon on YouTube like everyone else.)
Upon joining Quora and adding to its swelling conversation, perhaps you will wonder one morbid day what happens to the knowledge you drop there once you die. Rob Walker had some answers for you this week in his New York Times Magazine piece on the issue of our internet interjections' fate once we're unable to push "publish" or "delete" buttons -- because our fingers are stiff with death. The piece covers a prematurely expired blogger whose community took it upon itself to preserve his writing as well as a number of companies operating in necrocyberspace. Mr. Walker's piece is excellent throughout, though I'd argue the entire article probably should have focused on this fellow and his company:
My favorite digital-mortality business, DeathSwitch.com, gives the idea of speaking from beyond the grave a Web-era update. DeathSwitch was founded in 2006 by the neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman to coincide with a short story he wrote for Nature, titled "A Brief History of Death Switches." The story imagines an automated service that allowed its users to send messages after they die. People use it to reveal secret bank accounts to heirs, confess sins or settle scores from beyond the grave. Over time, uses for this fictional death switch become so elaborate that it is hard to tell that the sender of the message is deceased. That last part hasn't happened yet, but otherwise the service offered by DeathSwitch.com, in real life, is basically the same as the fictional one: some final words from you, to whomever, after you've gone.
DeathSwitch.com has enough subscribers to cover costs, according to Eagleman. It keeps tabs on users by sending a periodic email to make sure they are still alive. I suggested to Eagleman that I would find this regular reminder of my own mortality pretty unnerving, and he seemed perplexed.
The Monday Note is most certainly the only French media newsletter I read and it can often be rather good. This week's missive from Frederic Filloux offers up a, to potentially misuse a term, j'accuse to magazine publishers who have made a poor showing at translating their wares to the iPad. In addition to trotting out numbers that show the, shall we say, reverse growth of paid magazine app customers, Mr. Filloux offers strong counsel to the presumed disappointed folks at Conde Nast and the like. I liked this idea in particular:
Encapsulate the web. Personally, right before catching the subway, for a speedy and efficient offline reading, I'd love to have my iPad quickly download a set of 200 URLs of my favorites newspapers websites. (In real life, cellular data networks still are painfully clunky). With the web, we take for granted things such as multilayer reading, search and recommendation engines. Unless tablet publishers find a way to offer a unique e-magazine-like experience, these features will be missed.
Perhaps the biggest conundrum facing news organizations who choose to walk in the valley of premium, which is to say not-free content, is how those gated-up articles and videos get shared with people who don't subscribe (yet). This is particularly acute in the land of mobile apps. I might find a great story in a beautiful app that cost me a few bucks, but usually I can't easily tell others about it -- and remember, if something's not easy it's usually not worth doing. Bradford Cross digs into this in his "Measuring Measures" blog. His post might sound bleak, but Mr. Cross, in his broader argument that the iPad will not save journalism, allows that when the dust settles media companies might actually make more money than they used to:
The dominant models of search and social for discovery seem to point to the need for syndication above the need for subscription to branded channels. The syndication model in turn requires additional focus on relevance. This, together with the new needs for social and design, again points to the need for media companies to refocus their efforts on their core competency; journalism. This also points to the need for new platforms that allow these media companies to syndicate their content. Proliferation of individual apps or channels is not the new model. Google/Yahoo news isn't the new model -- they've been surpassed by Facebook already. Community sites like Digg and Reddit are not even in the running.
Finally, and you'll forgive us for returning to last week to include it, Wired's Clive Thompson rang out 2010 with a concise, useful look at how real-time flow of social media has actually benefited long-form journalism -- while doing some serious damage to stuff that's neither digestible as a Tweet nor deep as a New Yorker article:
The real loser here is the middle take. This is what the weeklies like Time and Newsweek have historically offered: reportage and essays produced a few days after major events, with a bit of analysis sprinkled on top. They're neither fast enough to be conversational nor slow enough to be truly deep. The Internet has essentially demonstrated how unsatisfying that sort of thinking can be.
Present weekly excluded -- natch!!